In Furor Hortensis

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The young should be trained to love flowers and take care of the garden shrubberies. Such knowledge and taste are greatly needed in our land,” counseled Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1858. The editors of that genteel monthly went on to note with alarm: “The surface of the United States is undergoing a revolution that must change its appearance and atmosphere. The hand of Industry is everywhere displacing the decorations of Nature, the hand of Art must add new beautifyings or the country will be unsightly as well as unhealthy. Men do the work of Industry,” they reasoned, “women must assist the work of Art. So Fair Girl and Comely Matron, be prepared with your sun-bonnet or straw flat, thick gloves and stout shoes for garden work this spring and remember that you are the guardians of health as well as beauty.”

Godey’s call to action hardly sounds revolutionary today. Women are engaged in amateur gardening by the millions; they spend an estimated $75,000,000 a year on the purchase of seeds alone; their local, state, and national garden clubs, numbering in the thousands, are a substantial force for just the sort of good works Godey’s had in mind—from conserving the nation’s wilds to planting city parks and battling river polluters. But to Victorian Americans even so charming a notion as a comely maiden digging among the delphiniums with a well-gloved hand was a novel, possibly subversive, proposal. Among the upper classes, gardening was considered men’s work, and generally hired men’s work at that. It would take at least another generation before genteel women could proudly call themselves dirt gardeners and more than six decades before a handful of women would dare to exercise “the hand of Art” through a fledgling organization called the Garden Club of America. Though the well-bred ladies who set out to become guardians of our health and beauty never thought of themselves as women’s liberationists, they too were helping to redefine women’s possibilities.

Exactly whose idea it was to organize the first local garden club is unrecorded, but in the last quarter of the nineteenth century there was an explosion of ladies’ clubs of all sorts as upper-class women came face to face with the loneliness and anxieties of their new leisure. Beginning around 1890 local garden clubs could be found in such widely scattered places as Athens, Georgia; South Dartmouth, Massachusetts; and Chicago.

As the clubs were small and exclusive by design—membership by invitation only—two or three groups might form within a community to accommodate everyone. Meetings, held regularly in one another’s parlors and gardens, were a decorous blend of Robert’s Rules of Order, garden gossip, plant exchange, and the reading of poetry—usually of the flowery genre—followed by a “pink tea,” with everything from the cups and napery to the fruit sherbet in shades of pink. In fair weather, a stroll about the grounds to admire the hostess’s garden was de rigueur , although the dainty attire prescribed for such occasions kept close encounters with nature to a minimum. In time, friendly competition among the ladies plus an ever widening choice of available plants, shrubs, and trees combined to stimulate greater variety in gardens than ever had been known in America. But the benefits rarely reached beyond the hedgerows of fine homes. Natural beauty, the ladies noted ruefully, was getting harder and harder to find in cities, around burgeoning factory towns, along roadsides.

Then, in 1913, as a member of the Garden Club of Philadelphia later recalled, “Mrs. J. Willis Martin cast into our midst the bomb which was the idea of uniting in a larger group to increase our usefulness in the cause of good gardening.” Scarcely an incendiary by present-day standards, Mrs. Martin was the forty-nine-year-old wife of a leading Philadelphia lawyer and a pillar of Main Line Philadelphia society; she was, however, a woman of formidable energies with deep yearnings to be something more than a materfamilias, and she fixed on the idea that she and her sister garden clubbers could make a real contribution to their communities by sharing their garden expertise.

Given the swiftness with which her proposal was put into action, Mrs. Martin had found buried in the bosoms of her peers a sincere need to be useful. Within a few weeks the Garden Club of Philadelphia had contacted eleven other clubs interested in community service. At the end of April, 1913, twenty-two representatives met in Philadelphia and drew up plans for a national organization that with careful nurturing they hoped could grow to encompass all parts of the nation.